CAIRO // Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi's opponents yesterday backed away from a boycott of Saturday's referendum on a controversial new constitution, and instead urged a "no" vote.
The National Salvation Front, an umbrella opposition group of liberals, secularists and moderate Islamists, called on Egyptians to participate and vote against the constitution provided the government guaranteed judicial oversight, secured polling stations, granted access to local and international monitors and held voting on one day rather than two consecutive Saturdays.
Several of the group's leaders had earlier called for a boycott because voting would "give legitimacy" to a process they say is dominated by Islamists and will deliver a flawed constitution. Until yesterday, the group as a whole had said only that it was opposed to a referendum.
It had instead focused on large-scale protests, some of which led to clashes with supporters of the president outside the presidential palace last week that resulted in at least six deaths and hundreds of injuries.
"The Front decided to call upon the people to go to the polling stations and reject the draft by saying 'No'," Hamdeen Sabahi, a senior member of the National Salvation Front, said yesterday. "The people will rally at the polls and have a chance to topple the constitution."
The announcement signalled the opposition's growing confidence that it can defeat the referendum, even against the expansive electoral strength of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that have called on Egyptians to vote for it. Supporters of the constitution have put up posters around Cairo that suggest voting "Yes" would keep the economy going.
Many judges have refused to oversee voting because of the president's controversial constitutional declarations over the past several weeks. The committee overseeing the referendum also did not say whether it would agree to having voting on one day, rather than the plan to have half the country vote on Saturday and the other half on December 22. Voting began yesterday in embassies for Egyptians living abroad.
The National Salvation Front's announcement came after the Egyptian military cancelled an event for members from across political, media and civic life to heal the division that has created the biggest political crisis since Mr Morsi was inaugurated as president in June.
Members of the opposition movement, who refused to join Mr Morsi's "national dialogue" session on Saturday, had agreed to attend the military's event. But in an abrupt statement yesterday afternoon, the military said it was delaying it because of a poor response from those invited.
The gesture to have such talks was itself a sign of the military's careful positioning in the battle over the constitution, said Mohamed Kadry Said, a retired air force officer and military analyst at the state-funded Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
"I was against this idea in the first place because nothing would come out of it," he said. "You can't have a useful discussion when there are 100 or 150 people having dinner, having a social event."
The military, to whom Mr Morsi has granted temporary powers to arrest civilians to increase security during the controversial referendum, was simply trying to "move past the confrontational atmosphere in the streets", said Maj Gen Said. "They are trying not to take sides."
The political crisis has started to have a knock-on effect in Egypt, with the government appearing to be increasingly cautious about making any decisions that could anger segments of the population.
Mr Morsi's government announced on Tuesday that it had asked the International Monetary Fund to delay its final approval of a US$4.8 billion (Dh17.6bn) loan arrangement with Egypt, pending further public discussion about the expected austerity measures planned for the coming months. A day earlier, Mr Morsi delayed tax increases just hours after his cabinet announced the details because of the "burden" Egyptians would face if they were enacted.
Egypt's economy deteriorated after the uprising last year that forced Hosni Mubarak to resign, with official unemployment inching above 12 per cent and a widening fiscal deficit.
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